This just in: Women like football

ARLINGTON, Texas -- More women watched last year's Super Bowl game between the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints than watched the 1994 Winter Olympic figure skating competition starring Nancy Kerrigan.

No, really.

In the wake of the knee-clubbing drama, 38.6 million women watched Tonya Harding versus Kerrigan in Lillehammer, Norway. But 41.9 million women watched the Saints claim a victory for the recovering city of New Orleans last year. Women love football, which is pretty much what the NFL has discovered when using every gauge imaginable to better understand its fan base.

Women make up 43 percent of the NFL's audience, and they aren't just serving the chips while the men watch the game. An interest in the performance of her fantasy football team has driven many a woman to take a seat in front of the TV (and the computer). And one-third of the core fans whom the NFL characterizes as "avid" are women.

The league is trying to serve this quickly growing segment, said Peter O'Reilly, the NFL's vice president of marketing. You may have noticed that women can now buy fan apparel that doesn't give one the silhouette of SpongeBob SquarePants. And in a campaign to benefit breast cancer charities this season, players wore hot pink, while the NFL sold related theme apparel.

"If we're going to do this, let's do it big and use the power of the NFL and the fact that we have 90 million female fans to make a difference," O'Reilly said.

The league has passed along over $1 million as a result of the campaign.

O'Reilly said having football players wear pink is a way of playing with ideas of masculinity and femininity but that most embraced the idea because a lot of them had been personally affected by the disease.

One of those is Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith, a Steelers practice squad player whose mother, Sheryll, died of breast cancer in 2008. He said the NFL's initiative was important, and he was proud to be able to take part in it.

"When we get to wear that pink, it means a lot to me," Cromartie-Smith said. "That's a tribute to my mom. I wear that pink with pride."

With support like that, the NFL will continue the breast cancer awareness initiative next year and into the foreseeable future. "It's part of our DNA," O'Reilly said.

There are other ways women are having an impact on the way the league does business. Advertisers are coming around. It's not just beer and chips, but a company such as Proctor & Gamble is coming to the NFL so that it can reach women who make purchasing decisions for their households.

The league has to market to female fans without seeming too patronizing. O'Reilly said the NFL needs to talk to the women who love football without talking down to them.

"They don't want to be treated any differently than male fans," he said.

The NFL has become the great American campfire, and statistically, women are taking their places around it.